MIDDLETOWN -- Just as it did a season ago, the Middletown North boys soccer team is hitting its stride during the thick of the Shore Conference Tournament, although the timing of both hot streaks can be attributed to different reasons.

Last year, the Lions were learning to win together and applying those lessons to each stop on the way to the 2022 Shore Conference Tournament semifinals.

This year, Middletown North's SCT surge is a little easier to explain: the Lions are more experienced and finally healthy.

Friday against No. 20 seed Toms River East, junior Josiah Stepney scored the game's lone goal and his 14th of the season, while a now-healthy Ryan Barnao keyed a defensive shutout in front of senior goalkeeper Landon Terrell -- a recipe that cooked up a 1-0 win for the 12th-seeded Lions and sent them through the to SCT semifinal round for the second straight season.

"This is family, man," Barnao said. "It's pretty much the same guys as last year. Same crew. We lost a couple seniors, but it's mostly the same guys. The coaching is great and we have good players."

"This group of seniors were my first group of freshman as the head coach," fourth-year Middletown North coach Eric Morley said. "So this is pretty special. We took over looking to change our culture with our hashtags and our branding, if you will, with our '#ToughTogether' stuff. These guys have really stuck to it as a team."

Wednesday night at Neptune, where Middletown North will face top-seeded Christian Brothers Academy for the second straight year at the same stage of the tournament, Middletown North will play in the SCT semifinals in consecutive years for the first time in program history. The Lions will be making their fourth trip ever to the semifinal round while seeking their first trip to the championship game since 1996. Middletown North has never won a Shore Conference Tournament.

In order to continue its pursuit of the program's first conference tournament championship, Middletown North had to foil the feel-good team of this year's tournament to this point. Toms River East entered play Friday coming off a penalty-shootout win over No. 13 Central Regional in round one and an emphatic, 5-2 win over No. 4 Colts Neck in Wednesday's round of 16. Both teams Toms River East defeated are ranked in the latest installment of the Shore Sports Network Shore 16 rankings.

"I think a lot of people talked about last year as just a run and we don't want it to be just a run," Morley said. "We belong there. Last year wasn't just a run and we proved that by getting back there in back-to-back years for the first time in school history."

Raiders junior goalkeeper Bobby Calvo has been at the heart of Toms River East's October turnaround, which included a six-game unbeaten entering Friday. Calvo saved seven shots in the first half to keep Middletown North off the board and among his 11 saves for the game was a tremendous double-save on consecutive uncontested shots by Stepney and senior Tommy Valinotti in the 68th minute.

Calvo's heroics in goal were not enough, however, to completely shut down Middletown North. In the 54th minute, Terrell unleashed a punt that bounced near midfield and landed with sophomore Paulie Que. With Stepney making a run down the middle on his left, Que popped a pass over the defense, giving Stepney a chance to race past the last defender and run down the ball.

Stepney waited until Calvo committed to leaving his line and chipped a shot over him and into the goal for the lone score of the match.

"Josiah has gotten better every game this year," Morley said. "A lot of people look at forward based on the stats and the goals they score, and he has that to support that, but more importantly to me, as a coach, what you are seeing him do in the heat of the moment with and without the ball at his feet is very impressive. He creates a lot of opportunities for other people and when he gets his chance, he lives for that. (Calvo) was very talented -- I wouldn't be surprised if that's the First Team All-Shore goalie -- but Josiah found a way to get it in."

In addition to Calvo protecting the Toms River East net before and after Stepney's goal, his defense was there to help as well. Sophomore Aiden Reis marked Stepney for most of the game and in the 28th minute, he covered Calvo by clearing the ball off an exposed line.

While the Toms River East defense and goalkeeping was solid on Friday, Middletown North's efforts in the back were unimpeachable. Barnao, senior Liam O'Keefe, senior Jake Isaksen and junior Nick Dinella limited the Raiders' chances and left Terrell with just three saves to make in order to complete his seventh clean sheet of the season.

Barnao has started since his freshman year at Middletown North and with the graduation of First-Team All-Shore center back C.J. Crolius, Barnao has moved from outside back to the middle of the defense. That move, however, was delayed when Barnao missed the first five games of the season due to a slipped disc in his back and did not start playing with regularity, according to Morley, until Oct. 7.

"It was a slow start to this year with the injury, but he was patient and worked his way back in," Morley said of Barnao. "We were smart with him and he has done a great job the last four games playing full time. And I have said it before, but Liam O'Keefe is our unsung guy back there. He is very good."

Not only has Barnao completed Middletown North's defense, but he has made a major impact scoring as well. Barnao already has two braces during the Shore Conference Tournament, with two goals apiece against No. 21 Monmouth in round one and two more in the road win over Southern Regional on Wednesday.

"I try to get forward as much as I can, at least on corners and any free kicks where we might be able to score," said Barnao, who said he is still feeling discomfort in his back, but is playing through it. "It's a chance to make us more dangerous, especially when we are looking for that first goal. Once we're up, I try to play back more and just focus on my defensive responsibilities."

After making the trip to Neptune last year as a No. 13 seed, the Lions will again be the highest-numbered seed in the semifinals this season at No. 12. That, however, is misleading; Middletown North finished second place in SCT Group 10 behind second-seeded Toms River North and the SCT format stipulates that a group runner-up cannot be seeded higher than No. 12.

In year's past, Middletown North might have been as high as No. 5, in which case, a run to the championship game would have meant a meeting with CBA anyway.

However you draw it up, Middletown North will be where it belongs on Wednesday night, which is precisely when the Lions have been out to prove since October of 2022. Now, they hope to do what last year's team came up just short of doing: upsetting No. 1 CBA.

"Playing CBA is tough," Barnao said. "They've got a full roster of kids who can play. We just have to play tough defense, get up on their strikers and stick to our game."

"Any given game, we don't have anything to lose," Morley said. "Nobody really talks about us anyway, so we just go out and play, whether it's CBA or anybody else."

Box Score

Middletown North 1, Toms River East 0

TR East (6-4-3)000
Midd North (11-4)011

Goals (Assists): (MN) Josiah Stepney (Paulie Que) 54'
Shots: Middletown North, 16-5
Saves: (TRE) Bobby Calvo 11; (MN) Landon Terrell 3

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